Nobody in a Land of Dripping Green.
Issue No. 5 - Autumn 2018.
We stop at a roadside fruit vendor on the long drive from the small airport in Butuan. The rain taps on the wood of the stand. Dana and I wait in the mud while her dad gets three red plastic bags full of produce, including durian. When we first enter through the gate at her grandma’s I notice a rusty sign hanging off from the wall that surrounds the property. I ask Dana about it but she doesn’t know. After a dinner of fresh fish, backyard-slaughtered lechón, the fruits, and rice, Dana and I remain at the table with her grandma. Everyone else leaves.
Dana mentions the sign and she explains, “I was in the logging industry, and liked business. My husband did not. He was a lawyer. But we never quarreled. We respected and supported each other, and it was not easy. There was a miniature ‘Vietnam’ here for a time. You saw the bullet holes on the column in front of the house. But we got through it together, and we sent the children away because it became too dangerous. I remember, calling them in America. To hear that they were waking up when it was still dark and driving themselves in the cold to work in hospitals, made me upset. But better that way there than dead here.” She gets up slowly, and Vilma steps forward from the shadows to walk with her upstairs to bed. Under which, Dana tells me, is a loaded AK-47.
Before I came to this giant house in the province of Mindanao, I knew her grandma as a church goer and gambler who lived in a two-bedroom apartment off Parsons Blvd with her daughter and son-in-law, at the same complex as Dana and her family. During parties she sat in a straight-back chair, wearing lots of gold jewelry and watching everyone while petting the shih tzus. I gave her a kiss on the cheek for the first couple years, until Dana showed me how to properly greet and bless a Filipino Lola. Take her hand, bow slightly, and touch her knuckles to your forehead. No-one knows her age. And here, with her half-wild dogs, red palm trees, fighting cocks, help, and authority she looks like the younger woman who exists in the pictures on the wall behind her desk in the massive living room. Standing fabulously stoic next to her husband in his dark green three-piece Gucci suit. Laughing over a martini with a local diplomat. She is too wise for the slowness, misery, and loneliness of physical decay, but nonetheless succumbs.
Dana and her family go to sleep but I don’t because I feel like drinking. I grab a bottle of San Miguel and two glasses and sit down at the plastic table on the patio with the men who stand guard through the night. They share one glass among the four of them, pouring, drinking, and passing. I try to speak English with the oldest guy, Al. He teaches me a few Bisaya phrases, but I forget them just as soon as I hear them. He has a warm cowboy’s face with hard-earned wrinkles. We listen to Christian Rock on a transistor radio and smoke my Korean Marlboro cigarettes.
In the morning, Dana slides open the glass door that separates the room we slept in from the one with her sleeping mom, dad, and brother, which is filled with the noise of the air-conditioner. I tip-toe right behind her in a t-shirt, black jeans, and flip flops with socks, for the bugs. She opens a heavy wooden door. Master is snoozing on the pink rug like a smelly old baby. The pungent odor of his white fur reaches my nose as I step over him and gently close the door. Dana pets his head and whispers “good morning.” He barely moves, looks at us warily, and returns to his dreams. Leading a pack of ten dogs must be tiring. He seems to know something we don’t. We wave goodbye to him as if to a withered onion and descend a suspended staircase that spills into a dim hallway the length of a bowling alley.
All along the hallway are big rooms no-one has slept in for years. One of them even has a sixties style circular bed, perfect for a soft-core porno. Many years ago, people stayed here because it was the closest hotel-of-sorts near the port at the bay. Businessmen, travelers, prospectors, murderers, and thieves. Dana’s parents told me the house is haunted by the ghosts of these former lodgers.
At the end of the hallway we cross through another door and go down two more flights. Everything is still and cool and a little dusty. Like a museum. We traverse the length of the house in the opposite direction to the kitchen. I am irrelevant and obedient in this atmosphere, my flip flops sound cute on the glossy, smooth stone floor.